Since the Abbott government came to power just eight months ago, there have been more than 5,000 public service job cuts announced. Another 15,000 are to come.
Liberal governments framed these cuts with well-known phrases like “trimming the fat” and “cutting red tape”. Cuts like these are broadly welcomed by the Australian public. When reading the comments section on news stories reporting the cuts, one could be forgiven for thinking that public servants were the most despised sector of people in the country.
Over the next three years up to 200,000 people will lose their jobs as car manufacturers Ford, Toyota and Holden move production out of Australia. The federal government has pledged $100 million to help develop a re-skilling and resettlement program for those workers left jobless. Unsurprisingly, there have been no commentators rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of joblessness in the car industry.
As a nation, we have written our public servants into a narrative of excess and greed. We take delight in vilifying them, in painting them, their jobs, and their livelihoods as somehow less valuable than the rest of the nation’s. By extension, the city of Canberra itself is denounced as a bloated bastion of bureaucracy and red tape, and held up as an example of the dangers of big government.
But public servants have families too, and they have mortgages to pay. They have kids to send to school, just like their counterparts at Holden, Toyota and Ford. Canberra’s economy will suffer just as Victoria’s and South Australia’s will. In fact, a report by Deloitte Access Economics predicts that the impact of the public service jobs cuts on the Canberran economy will be worse than that of the closure of the Holden plant upon South Australia’s.
Public servants are broadly from a different, more privileged background than car manufacturers, but this should not render them intrinsically less valuable or worthy of consideration. Just as the car plant workers will have trouble finding new jobs, so too will the public servants.
Many of those who have lost and will lose their jobs are career public servants, having gone directly from university into the service, with few unique and marketable skills that make them desirable in the cutthroat and highly competitive private sector. The car plant workers will face a similar struggle, with many of them finding themselves financially unable to move or retrain in order to find work.
An interesting comparison can be made between the public perception of academics and that of public servants. While academics are cut from a very similar privileged, white, tertiary-educated cloth to public servants and they do similar, socially productive work, they are cast as victims when they lose their jobs. Students rally to defend them and politicians denounce their poor treatment at the hands of corporate management. They’re not excess fat to be trimmed.
When the Federal Budget is handed down this coming Tuesday, more public service job cuts will undoubtedly be written into it. As these are carried out, and as the Holden, Ford and Toyota plants steadily shut down, we should spare a thought for all those who are affected. Job cuts and losses should be mourned in whichever sector they occur.